Alternatives for Sustainable Tourism in Tobago

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her weekly exploration of islands and the ocean. Today, she looks at alternatives in sustainable tourism through conservation and education, and imagines applications for the tremendous diversity of our own Tobago. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday October 13, 2016
Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter: @AnjGanase

Although Tobago has been tied to Trinidad for the past 127 years (since 1889), it is distinctly different in a lot of ways. For one it has built its own reputation as the quintessential tropical Caribbean island. Over the years, more people remember travelling to Tobago on family vacations than to Trinidad. It is considered to be the truer Caribbean island, less altered and more pristine. Even Trinis know this because it is where we go for a holiday. Tobago has a group of dedicated visitors, and we want to preserve this following and maintain these connections. But do we think that we can grow this market and develop without compromising our land and seascapes?

Tobago is similar to many other small island states and developing countries that have decided to make a shift from resort style tourism - which relies on large scale heavy construction, with severe alterations to the landscape - to dispersed and diversified forms of tourism, where the visitor is given multiple options for activities, accommodation and encounters. The product is the island, nature, people and culture; the way of life.

This week we look at two alternative options for expanding and developing the tourism sector, but with sustainability built in, where the focus is on engaging the visitor on a personal and authentic level and one that is mutually respectful.

The beach at Castara, Tobago. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Located farther along our island chain is Dominica, an island slightly bigger and more populated than Tobago. This volcanic island is home to a rich rainforest, over 350 streams and well-recorded diversity of animal and plant life. Also similar to Tobago, Dominica’s rainforest is protected. In the 1970s there was a plan for a mass tourism to be brought to the island, as was the approach on other Caribbean islands; however their beaches were shaded by steep cliffs and had minimal white sand to draw the crowd. In addition, there was an expectation of huge infrastructure that would be built to compete for the tourists attracted to the other sunnier islands.

It was at this point that the government decided to go in a different direction. Dominica looked at its identity, and shifted focus to promote small-scale local tourism (Weaver 2004). They would appeal to visitors who were not just interested in paradise but also willing to have an adventure and real encounters with local cultures. Dominica promoted itself as the Nature Island of the Caribbean. By preserving nature and the communities connected to it, it attracted a special sector of visitors. This format is supported on all levels from the community to government and fosters small-scale, locally managed tourism. Everybody is responsible for the product. Everybody earns from it. Niche attractions include activity-based tourism – birding, whale watching, kayaking, hiking, diving and snorkelling. A significant achievement is the development of the Waitukubuli national trail 184 km running north- south along the full length of the island. The trail crosses two nature reserves; local communities provide lodging, campsites and other facilities along the route. All the parks are protected; and rangers regulate traffic and collect fees for permits and passes that are used towards maintenance.

Scotts Head, Dominica. Photo source: (Creative Commons License)

Another option is to promote a locale for environmental education: knowledge based learning experiences in natural habitats and areas of historical and cultural importance. This can apply to all levels of formal learning, school and camp groups as well as university courses built on research-based excursions. Guided excursions may also be offered for general visitors.

Excursions may also run over longer periods and require both classroom/ research facilities and accommodation that may be provided by local entities. The work being carried out daily may facilitate long-term learning and engagement projects, such as monitoring forest regrowth, cataloguing indigenous wildlife or surveying coral reef health, all contributing to conservation in local communities. Over the years, I have worked with research field stations where I have seen the benefits of regular visits by international schools and university groups. The students learn everything about the local environment over the period of internship; they experience habitats that are locally managed and maintained.  Again, this requires the vision, the framework of organisation and management. It is possible to make a business of caring for the environment.

The success of alternative options like these relies on the following (Sarrasin and Tardif 2012):
1.     Protect the natural ecosystems, and put policies in place to ensure that the habitats are not abused. Healthy ecosystems can secure long-term stable income generation.
2.     Apply an adaptive co-management arrangement among stakeholders. The shared responsibility of all parties  - tour guides, accommodators, managers, government officials - is built on a system of duties and financial obligations, where roles are clear. By being adaptive, we ensure that procedures are ever evolving, through continuous dialogue within the social and natural systems.
3.     Build sustainable infrastructure to ensure protection of the environment and the visitor. This indicates instilling sustainable policies that govern how areas are protected, park fees, safety standards and regulation practice.
4.     Develop the skills of local communities in all aspects.

With any form of development, we can expect conflict between the multiple users of any resource. It is necessary therefore for all stakeholders to understand co-operation among roles: users, NGOs, business owners, park managers, government officials. This system is not hierarchical; cannot be managed with a top-down approach. A government that acts without open and transparent consultation or community meetings does not trust the people nor believe they can rely on the communities.

Finally, let us consider Tobago, long regarded as a jewel of the Caribbean. The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest legally protected forest reserve (April 13, 1776), an act specifically for conservation of the watershed. In this small island, natural ecosystems of coral reefs, beaches and mangroves shelter immense biodiversity. Imagine our Tobago whose tourism is based on a diversity of activities and adventures  - hiking and biking tours, camping and walking trails that may last days, stand up paddle and surfing lessons, scuba and snorkelling lessons. Imagine a tour of epic battles that took place offshore including exploring the wrecks in Scarborough harbour; hiking from one bay to another or one lookout to the next. 

Imagine a Tobago where each community co-manages their local resources. They manage, protect, showcase and educate. Accommodation can occur at multiple levels from student backpackers and the bungalow sharer to those in luxury cabins. Imagine every summer, the Buccoo Reef Marine Park Research Centre hosts classes for high schoolers and university students. The final product can only be a Tobago that knows its own identity, as custodian of this beautiful tropical ecosystem and marine environment; that knows its future is intertwined with locally owned conservation practices and monitoring projects. Pulchrior evenit, indeed, she grows more beautiful.

Sarrasin B., Tardif  J. (2012) Ecotourism and Natural Resources in Dominica. Co-Management as an Innovative Practice, Téoros 1 (Special Issue):85-90.

Weaver, D. B. (2004) Chapter 8, Managing ecotourism n the island microstate: the case of Dominica, Ecotourism: Management and Assessment (Dimitrios Diamantes).


  1. Thanks girl! Keep at it. You are the future.

  2. These concepts sound amazing. Do you think there is any chance that some of them might be taken up rather than the building of another identikit Sandals resort in the beautiful and as yet, unspoiled part of Buccoo

  3. Not unless Tobagonians (and Trinidadians) grow up and stop waiting for handouts from government.


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